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The Strike Zone

Five Cuts: Change in the AL Central, Pirates fade to black and more

Andy Dirks Andy Dirks broke up a critical double play that enabled the Tigers to score the go-ahead run and seize the AL Central lead. (Paul Sancya/AP)

The National League playoff picture is getting clearer by the day, while the American League is anything but. With Wednesday night's games featuring seven AL contenders strewn across six games -- to say nothing of the other action -- this one gave a workout to the laptops and iPads, requiring a lot of bandwidth to digest.

1. Central Change. For the first time since July 23, the Tigers have the top spot in the AL Central all to themselves. They got there with the combination of their 5-4 win over the Royals -- their third straight win over Kansas City -- and the White Sox’s 6-4 loss to the Indians. In climbing atop the AL Central, Detroit hasn't exactly been dominant, going 13-11 this month while the White Sox have gone 10-14, the same record as the Indians.

To win, the Tigers had to overcome an early 4-1 deficit that saw starter Rick Porcello chased after four innings. They powered their way back into the game in the fourth inning via homers by Alex Avila and Austin Jackson, and looked as though they might take the lead when Miguel Cabrera hammered a Jeremy Guthrie pitch to left field to lead off the fifth. It wasn't to be; Alex Gordon camped under the ball at the warning track and timed his jump perfectly, robbing Cabrera of what would have been his 43rd homer to tie Josh Hamilton for the league lead. The Tigers broke the tie in the eighth when Andy Dirks' takeout slide at second base prevented Irving Falu from turning Jhonny Peralta's groundball into a double play, allowing Don Kelly to score. Meanwhile, their bullpen -- rookie Luis Marte, and veterans Al Alburquerque, Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde -- delivered five scoreless innings and struck out six without issuing a walk.

That crisp performance stood in stark contrast to the relief work of the White Sox. Starter Hector Santiago couldn't hold the 3-1 lead given to him by the Sox offense in the first inning, and was chased after walking four and allowing five hits in three and a third innings -- the second night in a row a Sox starter failed to make it through the fourth, after Francisco Liriano on Tuesday. Reliever Brian Omogrosso immediately surrendered a game-tying two-run single to Jason Kipnis, and he and five other relievers -- manager Robin Ventura wore out a path from the dugout to the U.S. Cellular Field mound -- combined to issue eight walks to go with four hits. The decisive run scored in the seventh inning, after Ezequiel Carrera doubled to follow a one-out walk. Shin-Soo Choo grounded to Paul Konerko, who spun and threw home after stepping on first base, albeit too late for the double play. Cleveland added an insurance run in the eighth via a Vinny Rottino solo homer.

2. The Bucs stop here. The darlings of the National League for a good portion of the summer, the Pirates were mathematically eliminated from playoff contention on Wednesday night when they fell to the Mets, 6-0, dropping their record to 76-79. The franchise's first .500 finish since 1992, which seemed like a foregone conclusion back when they were 59-44 at the end of July, is now a long shot; the team would have to go 5-2 just to finish at .500, and 6-1 to finish above it. The latter would require the Pirates to do in a week what it has taken them 26 days of September to do: win a half-dozen games. The team is a major league-worst 6-18 in September, and just 17-35 since the end of July, rivaling only the Astros (16-35) and Cubs (16-37) in terms of NL anti-supremacy.

While the Pirates enjoyed the benefits of several positive developments this year, one thing that will be debated until they do finally get over the hump is whether general manager Neal Huntington was aggressive enough in fortifying the team for the stretch run. Prior to the July 31 deadline, the Pirates acquired starting pitcher Wandy Rodriguez from the Astros, first baseman Gaby Sanchez from the Marlins, outfielder Travis Snider from the Blue Jays and reliever Chad Qualls from the Yankees. To get Snider, they traded away reliever Brad Lincoln, while to get Qualls, they sent away Casey McGehee.

The results have been mixed, at best. Rodriguez has fared reasonably well, posting a 3.78 ERA and delivering eight quality starts out of 11. Sanchez has hit .262/.347/.430 with four homers in 121 PA, a marked improvement over the team's first base production to that point (.235/.289/.388), albeit in a platoon with Garret Jones. Snider, who has platooned with Jones in right field on the days he hasn't played first base, has been a dud, hitting just .246/.321/.331 with one homer in 134 PA. Qualls has been terrible, with a 7.30 ERA in 12 1/3 innings, failing to fill the void left by Lincoln, who had given the team a 2.73 ERA in 59 1/3 innings but who himself has struggled since the trade.

Rookie Starling Marte, called up just prior to the deadline to fill the left field abyss (.198/.241/.318 to that point), has hit .253/.297/.418 with four homers in 160 PA, swiping 10 bases to boot. Prior to the deadline, the Pirates and Indians are said to have discussed a deal involving Marte and Shin-Soo Choo, hitting .291/.378/.484 with 12 homers to that point (he has slumped to .260/.362/.344 with three homers in 224 PA since). Whether a year and two months of club control for Choo (who can be a free agent after next season) was worth more than six years of the 23-year-Marte's future, or would have been enough to reverse Pittsburgh's fortunes, remains in question.

Huntington didn't add any major league players to the organization during the August waiver period, but he did cut bait on starter Erik Bedard, releasing him on Aug, 28. In 24 starts, just eight of them quality starts, Bedard put up a 5.01 ERA. Even so, he had been free of his usual health woes, and striking out 8.5 per nine; his estimated ERA via the Fielding Independent Pitching metric was 4.14. Between James McDonald pitching his way out of the rotation with a 7.08 ERA and rookie Jeff Locke getting rocked for a 6.35 ERA in seven appearances, five of them starts (including Wednesday night), it appears the Pirates were at least one starter short. Had they kept Bedard -- perhaps bumping him to the bullpen until he could sort himself out following five-start, 7.71 ERA skid -- they might still be in contention, or at least above .500.

3. Breathing Room. The Yankees haven't had much margin for error lately. Not only did they spend the period from Sept. 3-23 separated from the Orioles by no more than one game in the standings, but coming into Wednesday, their last 14 games and 19 of their past 21 (again dating back to Sept. 3) had been decided by three runs or fewer; the only exceptions were a 10-6 loss to Baltimore on Sept. 6, and a 13-3 win over the O's on Sept. 9.

On Wednesday, they enjoyed a much-needed laugher, pummeling the Twins 8-2. The first six runs came in the third inning against reliever Brian Duensing, who had entered the game in the second when starter Samuel Deduno was removed due to irritation in his left eye. Robinson Cano drove in the first two runs with a bases-loaded double, and later Curtis Granderson added a two-run triple, then scored on a wild pitch. That the pair connected against the lefty Duensing was significant, because both have struggled against southpaws at least to some extent this season. Cano came in hitting .219/.289/.318 in 256 PA against lefties -- career lows in all three slash categories -- compared to .314/.354/.525 in 223 PA against them last year, and .285/.343/.514 in 239 PA the year before; with a .346/.415/.654 line against righties, his platoon split is larger than it's ever been. As for Granderson, he has been at least somewhat more productive against lefties; his 14 home runs against them are tied for fourth in the majors, and just two off last year's MLB-leading total. Nonetheless, his .212/.297/.452 line in 236 PA is uneven to say the least, and well off last year's .272/.347/.597 clip in 219 PA. That success came about as a result of Granderson's work with Yankee hitting coach Kevin Long; perhaps he could use a refresher course.

The other encouraging sign for the Yankees was the strong outing from CC Sabathia, who threw 118 pitches over eight innings, allowing six hits (all singles) and two runs while striking out 10. Three of the singles, and the second run he allowed, didn't come until the seventh inning, by which point the Yankees had built up a seven-run lead. Sabathia's outing was his second straight eight-inning effort with at least 10 strikeouts; he whiffed 11 and allowed just three hits and no runs against the A's on Sept. 21, snapping out of a brief funk. His pitch count was his highest since June 7, prior to both of his stints on the disabled list. Sabathia now has 192 innings pitched; with just one more regular season start scheduled, it appears his streak of five straight 200-inning seasons will come to an end unless he's so efficient that manager Joe Girardi lets him go eight innings one more time.

4. Powering up. The Orioles tied a franchise record with seven homers in beating the Blue Jays 12-2, allowing them to remain 1 1/2 games behind the Yankees in the AL East and atop the Wild Card race. The 10-run victory cut the Orioles' run differential from -11 to -1, the closest they've been to positive since June 24. Not only could they make the playoffs, they may do so with a positive run differential.

The barrage of homers came from blue-chip phenoms, scrapheap pickups, stretch-run stars and future Hall of Famers. Nate McLouth led off the bottom of the first inning with a homer off Carlos Villanueva; released by the Pirates earlier this year to capstone a 2 1/2 year slide into oblivion, he has been a solid pickup for the O's, hitting .274/.349/.441 with six homers. Forty-two-year-old Jim Thome added a solo shot in the fifth, the 612th of his career but just his third since being traded to the Orioles on June 30; he did miss nearly two months due to back woes. Later in that inning, 20-year-old Manny Machado -- who wasn't even born until Thome's second big league season -- followed with a solo homer; he would add a two-run blast in the eighth inning off David Carpenter, his sixth, to go with a .264/.291/.443 line since being called up on Aug. 9. Chris Davis broke the game open in the fifth with a three-run shot off Villanueva; he added a two-run shot off Chad Beck in the seventh, his 28th of the year. Mark Reynolds added a two-run homer in the sixth off Joel Carreno, his 23rd of the year and his team-high ninth of the month.

5. Mildly wild. Not only are four of the five playoff spots sewn up in the NL, but the race for the second Wild Card isn't a particularly close one. The Cardinals came into Wednesday with a 4 1/2 game lead on both the Dodgers and the Brewers. The Redbirds' magic number of four didn't decrease however, as they lost to the Astros 2-0, while the Dodgers beat the Padres 8-2 and the Brewers beat the Reds 8-1.

St. Louis was beaten by a familiar foe, Bud Norris, who threw 7 1/3 innings of two-hit shutout ball while striking out seven. The 27-year-old righty, who'd be a back-rotation filler on a better team than the dismal Astros, owns a career 4.47 ERA in 557 2/3 innings, but in 15 starts and 95 1/3 innings against the Cardinals, he's held to a 2.74 mark. Such is his mastery over the Cardinals that, according to St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Derrick Goold, "Bud Norris, and only Bud Norris, knows how to pronounce the 'R' in Rzepczynski." (For more such wisdom, search for the #BudChuck hashtag on Twitter).

Even in defeat, the Cardinals could take heart in the strong performance of Chris Carpenter, who in his second start since returning from surgery to correct for thoracic outlet syndrome lasted six innings and allowed just two runs on four hits while striking out three. Between the Astros and last Friday's start against the Cubs, Carpenter hasn't exactly faced high-caliber competition. His next start would come against the Reds, who have already clinched the division title and aren't likely to give him much of a preview of their regular lineup should the two teams meet in the playoffs.

For the Dodgers, the eight-run outburst was their highest total since Sept. 14, and just one fewer run than they had managed in their previous four games. The remade offense is still wheezing along at 2.95 runs per game this month, but the good news is Matt Kemp's return to normalcy. After three hitless games in a row, he erupted for four hits in five at-bats, including a two-run double off the base of the center field wall in the fourth and a two-run homer over it in the sixth, his 20th of the year. After falling into a 5-for-48 slump upon banging into the wall in Colorado and hurting his left shoulder, Kemp is hitting .308/.341/.513 with two homers over his last nine games.

As for the Brewers, their win featured big performances by Norichika Aoki, Ryan Braun, and Jonathan Lucroy, all of whom collected at least one homer and one double (Aoki had two of the latter). Braun's two-run, seventh-inning homer was his league-best 41st of the year; he also leads in slugging percentage (.603) and RBI (110). Aoki, who has hit .289/.356/.440 this year, has been a big part of the Brewers' late surge, batting .316/.385/.589 in September, with 17 of his 30 hits going for extra bases.
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